The mistakes kept coming for Christian Ponder in Detroit last weekend, and the young quarterback never looked more like the rookie that he is.
Ponder was intercepted three times, including one that was returned for a touchdown. He forced throws into tight coverages, launched them from ill-advised angles and lost a fumble as the Vikings fell behind 31-14.
So when Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier walked up to him in the third quarter and told him to take a seat, Ponder couldn't argue with the decision to let backup Joe Webb step in.
"When you play like that, especially in this league, you expect that to happen," Ponder said. "It's all about performance up here and, deservedly, Joe was put in."
Ponder was 11 for 21 for 115 yards with two touchdowns, three interceptions and two fumbles, one lost. Webb entered the game and rallied the Vikings, scoring on a 65-yard run and throwing a TD pass to Toby Gerhart.
With Webb under center, the Vikings had the ball on the Detroit 1 in the closing seconds with a chance to win the game. Webb fumbled the ball away and the Vikings fell to 2-11 on the season.
Ponder's progress has slowed since he used his mobility, poise and playmaking ability to inject some life into a stagnant offense when he took over for Donovan McNabb seven weeks ago. Against the Broncos two weeks ago, Ponder lost a fumble and threw two interceptions, the last a poorly thrown ball that landed right in cornerback Andre Goodman's stomach as the Vikings tried to mount a late-game drive.
The slide has coincided with a hip injury that has limited Ponder's practice time and hampered his ability to get outside the pocket, which was one of his biggest assets.
Frazier said he remains firmly in Ponder's corner, and thinks the struggles are a combination of the injury and a young player going through the typical growing pains that come with playing one of the most demanding positions in sports.
"If you take a look, over the years, at some of the young quarterbacks who have started in their first year, it varies, but I don't think the numbers are going to be dissimilar," Frazier said. "A lot of those guys struggled in their first years, and we'll be better for it as he grows into the position."
Ponder said that his hip was feeling much better on Wednesday, and he was able to participate fully in practice. He will get the start on Sunday against New Orleans (10-3), and said it's important for him to show some progress over the remaining three games to build some momentum, and faith, heading into next season.
"I need to show improvement, not only for myself, but for my team," Ponder said. "I've got to do a better job of holding onto the ball. It's hard to win ballgames when you give the other team points, so I've got to do a better job these next three weeks and hopefully get three wins."
Saints quarterback Drew Brees knows what Ponder is going through. Brees only started one game as a rookie before taking over the Chargers' offense in his second season. He said it took him until his fourth season to really feel comfortable in the role.
"You've got to face adversity, especially as a young player," Brees said. "It takes longer for some than others."
Ponder could be aided by the return of running back Adrian Peterson, who has missed the last three games with a high ankle sprain. Peterson was limited in practice Wednesday and Frazier said he will be evaluated as the week progresses.
Overall, Frazier said he has been encouraged with the maturity Ponder has shown in such a trying season. The Vikings will have a high draft pick next April, and there has been some speculation that they could choose a quarterback in the first round for the second straight year if Ponder continues to stumble.
But Frazier doesn't sound like a coach who has lost faith in the investment the team made by choosing Ponder with the 12th pick this year.
"He's handled everything extremely well," Frazier said. "It's hard. Nobody wants to turn the ball over or be in a situation where you don't lead the team to a win.
"Overall he's managed the situations well to the point where he didn't seem to have any problems today in practice. He seems to really be in tune to this ball game and moving on from the last game."
Ponder's progress slowing as season drags on
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